How 'Autism: The Sequel' Illustrates the Perseverance We Need Now (Guest Column)

Executive producer Kristen Stills shares how her son's journey from the 2007 documentary 'Autism: The Musical' to its follow-up, airing Tuesday on HBO, can be an inspiration to others at an uncertain time.
Courtesy of HBO

As an executive producer of HBO's Autism: The Sequel, I sit in my quarantined household with a sense of hope amid a worldwide pandemic that has us all in an equally uncertain state. The 40-minute short is a follow-up to HBO's 2007 documentary Autism: The Musical. While the original followed five kids of different ages for a year as they created, rehearsed and ultimately performed a musical theater production, the update revisits them more than a decade later.

The kids featured in the film — Lexington Aaron, Wyatt Isaacs, Neal Katz, Adam Mandela Walden and my own son, Henry Stills — have each been impacted by autism in very different ways. The spectrum of their gifts and challenges is broad and allows for a rich canvas of possibilities from which to create an artistic endeavor.

Autism: The Sequel allows us to see the journey these young adults have been on and follow —largely in their own words, even if by technological means — their transition into independent or interdependent living situations. It's incredibly uplifting to see — especially at a time when the world needs stories of perseverance against what can sometimes be considered insurmountable odds. And yes, I can acknowledge that there are people on the spectrum who take offense to the idea of their lives being any more challenging than the neurotypical population. To each his own. Still, keep that box of Kleenex close. 

It's important to note that not every young adult on the autism spectrum is having the same experience as our five. There is no "same experience" in the world of autism, and the families that we documented in both movies had access to resources and the time to pursue those measures. Both are hardly the norm.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed all of our lives to varying degrees. But for many of the spectrum parents whom I remain in close contact with, it's important to take a closer look at what life looks like at home for our children. A friend recently told me that she had to install a new alarm on her home's back door after her son was found ringing their neighbors' doorbell at 2:30 a.m. in search of pizza. It's a sweet anecdote, but the implications of a big guy with a flashlight roaming the neighborhood in the wee hours can make a parent's blood turn to ice with nightmares of potentially negative consequences.

On the flip side, the sequestering of family members has also delivered surprising gifts. My own son, a high-functioning Asperger's guy, uses his imagination and creativity to dress up as a knight in medieval garb and read bedtime stories to our littlest family members, complete with the appropriate accent.

As I reflect on the story we tell in the sequel, I ponder how it might be received by a state-ordered Safer at Home audience already filled with unprecedented levels of anxiety about the health of their loved ones, home schooling, the economy and their own professional livelihoods and a whole host of other fears. It reminds me of the time when doctors, therapists and attorneys told me and my fellow spectrum parents what our kids would and would not be able to do. And yet, as we illustrated in Autism: The Musical and its follow-up, we're here, years later and each of our five featured kids has broken through barriers and wildly exceeded the expectations the "pros" presented to us.

The stories of our children and spectrum parents are so relative to our current landscape. It's an unfair comparison to be sure but as our nation perseveres and unites against a terrifying pandemic, it's important to remember that miracles can happen and there is never an absolute when it comes to our future. There is no crystal ball in life that will tell us exactly what any journey will look like. There is, however, a process of survival that we can focus on, rather than fixating on the end result.

I remain forever in gratitude to Bunim/Murray Productions for shepherding these types of documentary film projects and to HBO for providing a platform for these kinds of stories.

While everyone has spent hours binge-watching tiger tamers and the news over the past month-plus, I hope you'll join us for 40 minutes for a program that illustrates an essential goal in this surreal moment in history: hope. As my son has shown me, hope can get us through anything.

Kristen Stills is an activist and Emmy-winning executive producer of Autism: The Musical. With her husband, Stephen Stills, she produces and hosts the semi-annual concert Light Up the Blues, which benefits Autism SpeaksAutism: The Sequel premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.